ZIO MWALE, Lusaka
AS THE Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) battles the Ebola outbreak, with 29 deaths recorded so far, the situation in the neighbouring country has put Zambia on her mettle.Zambians and Congolese interact in numerous business activities, such as cross border trade. This puts Zambians at risk of catching the deadly hemorrhagic fever.
The DRC, which shares a long border with Zambia, announced an outbreak of the deadly Ebola on May 8, 2018 in Bikoro Province at the border with the Central African Republic.
Though geographically, the affected Biroko borders the Central African Republic and is far from Zambia, making the risk assessment for Zambia very low, the Ministry of Health (MoH) has continued taking serious defensive measures to prevent the disease from spreading to Zambia
What is Ebola virus?
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) the Ebola virus was first discovered in 1976 near the Ebola River in DRC. It causes a rare disease that can affect primates and humans and it is believed the virus is transmitted to humans by bats.
Recovery from Ebola depends on good supportive clinical care and the patient’s immune response.
Since the 1970s, there were occasional outbreaks of Ebola in humans in several African countries, although the largest epidemic was in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone between 2014 and 2016. More than 800 people have died of Ebola during eight previous outbreaks in Congo since 1976.
In the current outbreak, as of July 3, 2018, DRC has had 53 cases of suspected Ebola fever and 29 deaths recorded.
Notably, Zambia is among the 10 African countries that are declared at risk of the outbreak by WHO. The countries should ensure they are ready to respond to a potential Ebola epidemic.
Minister of Health Chitalu Chilufya says Government has put up disease surveillance activities that have been escalated at all border points in Zambia.
In an interview, Dr Chilufya said priorities include the strengthening of surveillance and contact tracing, laboratory capacity, awareness messages, case management and community engagement.
“Since the outbreak in DRC, we have re-enforced all the border entry points with surveillance officers and disease intelligence and surveillance activities have been heightened,” he said.
He shared that medical personnel that were trained in Ebola response in Zambia have been recalled and designated medical facilities have been identified in case of an outbreak.
Dr Chilufya explained that Zambia is at low risk of the epidemic but Government will not stop putting up precautionary measures to ensure that public health security in line with international guidelines is achieved.
“The risk assessment at global level and for Zambia is very low. The risk assessment for the national level in Congo is high; the risk assessment for the regional area near that border is moderate because of the river that they share bordering the Central African Republic,” he said.
The minister advised the public to look out for Ebola symptoms which are fever, severe headache, muscle pain, weakness, fatigue, diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal (stomach) pain and unexplained hemorrhage (bleeding or bruising).
“Symptoms of Ebola may appear anywhere from 2 to 21 days after contact with the virus, with an average of 8 to 10 days, but individuals with such symptoms should be rushed to the nearest health facility,” Dr Chilufya said.
He highlighted that Government has adequate stocks of proactive equipment that was bought during the previous outbreak of Ebola in West Africa.
“We have put back the multi-sectoral plan that we made at country level during the last outbreak and re-circulated it to all the line ministries for them to take various roles in order to prevent the spread,” the minister shared.
The WHO will soon be carrying out extra Ebola risk assessments and will be sending teams to Zambia to identify possible gaps; the country’s anti-Ebola response capacity and consider the required resources in case of an outbreak.
Zambia National Public Health Institute (ZNPHI), a public centre that addresses major public health concerns and seeks to improve health for Zambians in conjunction with the Disaster Management and Mitigation Unit (DMMU) has continued sending aware messages on Ebola to the Zambian public through different mediums.
“We have broadcasted different awareness messages on Ebola, and we are using different mediums in order to get to the public. For us this is a very critical issue and should be taken serious,” ZNPHI director Victor Mukonka said.
Dr Mukonka said his organisation was careful about the Ebola outbreak in the DRC because although the epidemic maybe far, the disease is dangerous and spreads quite fast.
“Ebola spreads very fast and it kills. I would like to advice the public to take interest and read text messages that we have been sending to everyone so that they know how to prevent the disease,” he said.
ZNPHI has produced Ebola awareness messages that are being broadcast on television, radio and through brochures.
A committee of permanent secretaries (PS) chaired by the Secretary to the Cabinet has been created for the purpose of strategising and ensuring that Zambia is ready to respond to a possible Ebola outbreak. The committee meets every Thursday of the week.
ZNPHI has also strengthened the anti-Ebola surveillance system across the country and screening programmes at ports of entry into the country.
“Right now as I speak, some of my staff are in Chingola, they are having a meeting with Congo (officials) so that we can improve surveillance around the border area,” Dr Mukonka said.
He shared that ZNPHI is also committed to ensuring that the country is ready to respond to any other disease that threatens public health.
Apart from that, the institute is training people on weekly basis on how to respond to any public health emergency.
“We negotiated with mobile networks, am sure everyone has being receiving awareness text on Ebola. That is another way of sensitising the public,” Dr Mukonka said.
He also mentioned that Government has in stock protective clothing in case of any emergency and that some stocks will be supplied in specific places very soon.
Preventive efforts are also being undertaken at regional level as Southern African Development Community (SADC) member states have been meeting to share information on how the Ebola outbreak in DRC can be contained.
“Our colleagues in Congo have been giving us updates. And as a region, we look at our level of preparedness (to contain the disease). We also support our neighbour country, Congo. We hope that Ebola will be contained soon,” he said
Awareness Messages on Ebola by ZNPHI and DMMU.
• Ebola is a killer disease; the symptoms are fever, headache, body pains, vomiting, diarrhea, rash and general body weakness. It could be Ebola contact health authorities immediately
• Ebola is spread to person to person through direct contact with body fluids such as blood, saliva, sweat, urine of an infected person.
• Ebola outbreak is a real threat, avoid or postpone non-essential travel to any place or country where there is an outbreak of Ebola.
• Wash hands regularly with clean water with soap and maintain good hygiene always.
• Do not touch blood, saliva, excreta, urine and other body fluids of a person suspected to have Ebola.
• If you travelled to any Ebola affected countries in the past one month and if you have high fever, headache, body pains, vomiting, diarrhea, rash and general body weakness, it could be Ebola. Contact health authorities immediately.
• Dead bodies of infected people or animals can still transmit the virus. Report any suspected case to the nearest health facility.
• Health workers must always wear protective clothing when treating patients.
ZIO MWALE, Lusaka